Sunday, April 21, 2019

Notre-Dame: How to Save It from Modernity

The roof of Notre-Dame de Paris engulfed in flames.

The destructive fire at Notre-Dame de Paris on April 16, 2019 was a terrible tragedy and many people around the planet felt a loss. The cathedral speaks to something of Western civilization, and it helps to define us. It follows that it is necessary to speak of the essence of Christian building, for inappropriate gestures and misunderstandings at large threaten the cathedral more than the initial fire.

I will try to briefly explain the danger by describing the difference in knowledge between medieval and modern.

 Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and we can see that what and how we know today, is very different from what man knew in the 12th century. The history of ideas, and the changing nature of what man holds to be true and false, reveals that medieval knowledge is inverted when compared to modern knowledge. The modern age has been revolutionary, and has broken with the knowledge of the past.

The unthought presuppositions of our modern secular culture obscures our ability to see and know the thoughts of the distant past, when Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral was constructed. Today, ideas are assumed to exist within the human brain, and human society develops better theoretical ideas over time through rational thinking and methodology. In the 12th-century this was not the case. If we try to translate medieval thought into modern language, we might say that medieval ideas are assumed to exist outside of the human brain, in the cosmos, and it is humanity’s job to discover those ideas. For medieval man, everything discloses itself and is communicable, if we listen carefully.

If we completely abandon the unthought presuppositions of modern secular culture, then it is easier to state that medieval Christian knowing is possible by abandoning the isolated and personal, and participate in that which is. Personal and private experience is not important, but being attuned to what the cosmos shows, is important. What is revealed by looking in a Christian manner is the eternal mystery, the answer to why we are here, the meaning of life. All of this of course presupposes a natural order which exists and is accessible to all, unlike the modern notions of a universe of random processes and inert matter accessible only to those trained within a university setting.

But what does this have to do with rebuilding Notre-Dame de Paris?

The rebuilding effort is at risk because the threat of destruction from modern interventions is great. Modernity is intentionally revolutionary and subversive, and the effort to subvert a product of religious knowing, should not be allowed. The roof which was destroyed by the fire can be rebuilt, but destroying the success of previous generations cannot be rebuilt. The tradition of understanding Divine Presence, and the unique cultural achievements associated with the tradition, and which began many thousands of years ago, should not die with our generation. Modernity has washed over the West for hundreds of years, and removed a great many thoughts, behaviors, and monuments, but Notre-Dame de Paris should not be one of them.

Modern architects and engineers do not understand the cathedral and will replace what is being said with their own statements. For instance, Norman Foster was reported to have suggested a glass and stainless steel roof with a modern spire should replace the timber and lead roof. This sort of statement is antithetical to the original purpose of Notre-Dame de Paris, for the Foster idea is a personal statement that exists outside the building and religious tradition. This is to say nothing of other motivations, such as those by Emmanuel Macron, the President of the French Republic, whose political vision underlay his call to rebuild in five years using modern materials.

An artistic rendering of Foster's architectural vision.

The incompatibility of the 12th-century cathedral with, say, the London Shard, (the skyscraper in Southwark designed by Renzo Piano), is visually obvious to all, even if the history of ideas is not obvious. Not only should placing a “shard-like” construction on top of the cathedral be out of the question, but using modern materials to re-create the roof, like sheet-glass, I-beams, and engineered lumber, should be out of the question as well.

This is because engineered products created in an industrial process are not dedicated to anything. Engineered lumber is simply a homogenous material product that can be relied upon to behave according to scientific and engineering principles. It can be used in a church, a residence, a hospital, government building, or any type of building as long as the quantity of load doesn’t exceed given specifications. It is standardized, homogenized, and undifferentiated, which is absolutely inverted from the original purpose of Notre-Dame de Paris. The entire cathedral, including the unseen roof timbers, is dedicated to the Christian message of God’s presence in the cosmos through Christ. As the Son of God, He was set apart and proclaimed to be the embodiment of God on earth, so therefore the Christian church is also a place for the physical embodiment of the divine, a manifestation of the sacred in a real way, for the etymological root of dedicated is “deik-“, which means to show. The cathedral shows us God, but engineered lumber does not. If we use modern language at this point, despite modernity’s inadequacy, for these ancient ideas can be obscure, we might say that Notre-Dame de Paris creates a powerful subjective experience, or in other words visitors to the cathedral can undergo a mystical experience. Such a phrase points the way, yet falls short of the absolutely differentiated medieval knowledge embodied in the cathedral.

I will end by suggesting who should be given the responsibility of rebuilding. Today, there are many master masons who have continued the masonry tradition at cathedrals across France, England, and elsewhere. The maintenance that must be carried out regularly is performed by skilled craftsmen using hand tools. For instance, Canterbury cathedral employs 25 stone masons and apprentices. The design and building of the new roof should fall to these skilled craftsmen working diligently over a long period of time, not architects or engineers. This is because the craftsman, through his everyday activities, understands the essence of the material, or what is given. The stone or timber has ideas, so to speak, within it and the craftsman accesses this knowledge through his work. It is in this way that masons and carpenters participate in what is, while architecture and engineering are modern professions created not from medieval knowing and participation, but instead from recent notions about the location of knowledge.